The St. Louis Blues just won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday and were feted with a parade and rally under the Gateway Arch on Saturday. The official end of hockey season? Hardly. Things are done on the ice for now but will really start heating up off of it.
The NHL Awards are Wednesday night in Las Vegas, with Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin joining St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington and Vancouver sniper Elias Pettersson as the three finalists for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Former Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for St. Louis, is a nominee for the Selke (defensive forward) and the Lady Byng (gentlemanly player). Ex-Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders is expected to run away with the Masterton Award for perseverance and dedication to hockey, and is a nominee for the Vezina Trophy for best goalie.
The NHL's board of governors is expected to have its regular meeting in Vegas, and then the league moves to Vancouver for draft weekend. General managers meet there on Thursday, in what could bring about sweeping change and expansion in video replay and an important shift in the standings that would make regulation wins the first tiebreaker rather than wins in regulation plus overtime.
The first round of the draft in Rogers Arena is Friday night with the Sabres currently owning Nos. 7 and 31 (acquired from St. Louis in the O'Reilly trade). The betting here is the Sabres move No. 31 in a package for a current NHL player. Rounds 2-7 of the draft are Saturday.
A buyout window opened Saturday and stretches until June 30 at 5 p.m. Sabres GM Jason Botterill has been open in the past about his disdain for buyouts, preferring to just play out contracts rather than stretch them out over time, even for lesser amounts. And now that Cody Hodgson's 2015 buyout docks the Sabres $791,667 on the cap for the next four seasons (ouch), Botterill may not be interested in adding another.
But he should. Vladimir Sobotka is owed $3.5 million for 2019-20 and quite simply should not be on the team. If a buyout of Sobotka adds to Botterill's embarrassment over the O'Reilly trade, so be it. At 31, Sobotka is no longer an NHL player. A buyout would cut his cap hit to $1.5 million for this season but give him a $1 million hit for 2020-21, when he would have been off the books. No matter. Botterill should do it. Pronto.
The interview period for unrestricted free agents opens at 12:01 a.m. June 23. For restricted free agents, it opens at 12:01 a.m. on June 26. The are plenty of big-name UFAs out there like Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Kevin Hayes, Anders Lee, Jake Gardiner and former Sabres Calder winner Tyler Myers.
It's RFAs where things get very interesting. Look at this list of names heading to RFA status that are probably all worthy of big money: Binnington, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk, Timo Meier, Brock Boeser, William Karlsson, Mikko Rantanen, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, Sebastian Aho, Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy.
Wow. It's going to crush some teams on the cap and leaves lots of speculation flying that offer sheets could be coming for the first time since 2013.
And the offer sheet might not even be to actually acquire the player. Would some GM out there risk the wrath of the Leafs by offer sheeting Marner, thus forcing Toronto to match and jam their cap to the point where the Leafs couldn't sign Kasperi Kapanen? Or perhaps offer sheet Kapanen at a much lower price, knowing the Leafs have to get in the $10 million to $11 million range for Marner and can't overpay second-tier players?
Lots of possibilities here to watch. Stay tuned. Come July 1 when free agency opens, things could get mighty interesting.
Schedule release coming
The full NHL schedule for 2019-20 is not expected to be released during draft week, as it's reportedly been pushed back to June 25. The league is expected to release teams' home openers on Friday night.
The Sabres' early-season schedule will be interesting to check out. If the league opens in the first week of October, Buffalo may be starting on the road this year because there are concerts in the building from MercyMe (Oct. 3) and Phil Collins (Oct. 4). Look for another long October road trip in the middle of the month as the Jurassic Park World Tour is in the house Oct. 17-20. And it will be interesting to see how much rest the Sabres get before and after their trip to Sweden for games against Tampa Bay on Nov. 8-9.
Price paid for heavy hit
Overlooked play of the Cup final: The boarding call on St. Louis' Oskar Sundqvist against Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk in Game 2. It resulted in a one-game suspension – but Grzelcyk missed most of that game and the next four due to a concussion. It cost the Bruins' one of their prime puck movers from the back end, and they struggled in that area with Grzelcyk out and Zdeno Chara limited after taking a puck to the face in Game 4.
"He’s an incredible puck mover and he's just kind of had that fire in his eye for the playoffs," McAvoy said of Grzelcyk prior to Game 7. "He’s been playing awesome for us, and we’ve missed him terribly since he’s been out. He just gives us that extra jolt when it comes to breaking out. He’s a gifted puck-mover."
Speaking of Chara, he revealed on Friday at locker cleanout day in Boston what everyone already knew: He had multiple fractures in his jaw, with plates and wiring in his face, and was surviving on a liquid diet. He should be recovered, however, in the next five to six weeks.
Other Sabres Cup connections
In addition to O'Reilly, three other Blues players with Sabres connections got a chance to hold the Cup during Wednesday's postgame ceremonies.
Chris Butler, a defenseman and St. Louis native who played 155 games for the Sabres from 2008-2011, played 13 games for the Blues this year (one goal, one assist) in his fifth season in the organization. Butler, 32, played 51 games in the AHL for San Antonio.
Chris Thorburn played just two minutes in one game for the Blues this year but the team called up the rugged forward from the AHL at the end of the season so he could collect his NHL health care for his 8-year-old autistic son. Thorburn practiced with the team each day as opposed to the Black Aces squad of reserves but did not appear in the playoffs.
Thorburn was drafted by the Sabres in the second round in 2001 and spent three years in Rochester. He only played two games for Buffalo, both in 2005-06, and his career has taken him to Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Winnipeg and St. Louis. The 36-year-old has played 801 NHL games and is likely headed into retirement.
Jordan Nolan, who played 14 games for the Blues after spending last year with the Sabres, lifted the Cup for the third time after winning with Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. The son of former Sabres coach Ted Nolan didn't have a goal in the NHL this year but had 17 goals and 18 assists in San Antonio.
* The Sabres had a 1-13-2 nosedive from March 2 to April 2 that ultimately led to Phil Housley's undoing, and narrowly missed becoming the first team in history to pair a 10-game losing streak with a 10-game winning streak in the same season. Remember the only win in that stretch? It was a 4-3 St. Patrick's Day shootout victory in what Jack Eichel called a "rambunctious" KeyBank Center against .... the St. Louis Blues. Seriously.
* The road team won five of seven games in the Cup final. The Bruins lost the series despite winning road games by scores of 7-2 and 5-1 – the Blues' worst two home losses since December.
* Entering Game 7, Boston goalie Tuukka Rask had stopped 145 of 149 shots in his five prior elimination games in this playoff year for a stunning .973 save percentage. Then Rask got burned for two goals on four shots in the first period of Game 7 and four goals overall in the game.
* That's three straight wins in Game 7 for road teams in the Cup final, as the Blues joined the Bruins (2011 at Vancouver) and Pittsburgh (2009 at Detroit) in that stretch. Before the Pens' victory, road teams were just 2-12 – and had not won since Montreal prevailed at Chicago in 1971. The eventual winning goal in the last nine Game 7s has been scored in the first or second period, dating to Henri Richard's '71 winner at 2:34 of the third period in Chicago Stadium.
* The Blues won a seven-game series even though their power play was held to a 1-1 stalemate. St. Louis was just 1 for 18 with the man advantage – and gave up Brandon Carlo's short-handed goal in Game 4.
* That whopping 41.8 rating on NBC for St. Louis in Game 7 is even more amazing when you consider the combined estimate of more than 50,000 fans who were at watch parties in Enterprise Center and Busch Stadium. That's a lot of eyeballs that weren't in front of a television set to count in the ratings.
The last word
It goes to Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who rued the lost opportunity of the Bruins' first potential Cup clincher at home in 1970 and closed his column off Game 7 with this only-in-New-England classic: "So now it’s on to the Red Sox. And that doesn’t feel very good either."